Michael Yon travelled to Uruzgan to see what he could see. He is by his own description on “a long tour of Afghanistan” to discover what is going on in places where international forces have fought and died. Not a bad idea. These places are indeed “(n)ames that mean almost nothing to most people, but everything to others.” But there is something wrong with the picture he paints.
On Sunday 27 February Michael Yon joined development contractor CADG (Central Asia Development Group) on an assessment trip to Chora. He makes the trip sound nice and dangerous. Chora, he says, is a “violent village”. A quick web search “will reveal countless articles about heavy fighting”. They took an “extremely dangerous stretch of road” where he was told “well over a hundred troops and Afghans died in the last 14 months.” (*)
While the CADG managers checked on their USAID funded projects, the Afghan authorities ‘dumped’ the body of a Taleb killed in nearby fighting. Yon debscribes how “(m)en and boys flocked to the body.” He took a panorama picture of “these dangerous men” and left soon after: “Danger was in the air”. He ends his blog by asking his readers to “please take time to examine this panorama by scrolling around and using the + and – sign to zoom in and out. Look at the faces of these men, and you’ll see the faces of Taliban.” [emphasis is mine]
So what did Yon see? He visited Chora bazaar, which is the district centre, not far to the north of provincial capital Tirin Kot. It is part of a cluster of villages that is under nominal government control and that has come under regular attack by a confusing mix of insurgents, aggrieved or rival tribes, and revenge-taking clans. Even those living in the pro-government areas tend to be deeply resentful of the government. Not because they ‘hate their way of life’ or because they ‘don’t want to be governed’ (quotes from random narratives, not from Yon’s blog), but rather based on years of marginalisation, pressure and political intrigue. They run a serious risk of being caught between two grinding stones and they know it.
The body that Yon saw, and that was unceremoniously dumped at the village square by the police, was an insurgent who had been killed the night before, during an attack on a nearby police post. The body was left at the square so it could be retrieved by relatives. I have not been given his name, although it is of course by now known, but he was a resident of a nearby village, belonging to a different Achekzai sub-tribe than those living in the vicinity of the police post. It is clear that many of the people in the bazaar could have known who he was and that they would have wanted to “flock to the body” to check.
It is however ridiculous to suggest that the faces of all the men in the picture – which is, by the way, stunning and could have really done without the accompanying blog – are the faces of Taleban. (This is also illustrated when the author clarifies in the comments section that the two armed men wearing red pieces of cloth in the picture are actually his security guards). This is government territory, albeit only very precariously so. The men in the picture are likely to have ambiguous loyalties. Most of them would probably love to be left alone and not have to balance conflicting pressures all the time.
A CADG blog describing the same visit, shows a similar sense of overwhelm by the alienness and apparent hostility of the place, but it is more nuanced (which is of course a prerequisite if you want to work in an area, rather than drive through and take a few pictures). It provides some clues on what the men may have been angry about:
“However when we did arrive in Chora it became apparent why we had made the journey. Of all the locations I have been to in Afghanistan over the past two years, I had never seen such a destabilized community, desperate for assistance as Chora. Driving through this small town, I could observe the obvious battle damage, which took the form of demolished buildings and roads, as well as the body of a dead Taliban fighter that had been laid out for display in the town square. Yet just as disturbing was the sight of so many Afghan men unemployed, lingering around the town each with a level of frustration and anger that was palpable. The town was a powder keg, waiting for a spark.
As we sat down with the district governor and village leaders, we explained the labor selection process and how it was important that each tribe be equally represented in the laborers selected to work on the cash for work program. Immediately, the community’s frustration and anger that was so palpable outside was apparent inside, as inter tribal disputes and resentments were voiced.”
Yon’s picture is fascinating precisely because it is not depicting a group of Taleban fighters, who are looking into the camera suspiciously, menacingly, curiously or absent-mindedly. It is a group of men in a bazaar in a contested area, unsure why their pictures are being taken. There is no real way of telling whom they represent or who they will side with, when push comes to shove (although some people in the comments section are convinced you can tell by the shoes they are wearing, apparently something Yon has been suggesting in the past, and repeats again in his response). They will shift, duck, play off the different sides and look at each other suspiciously, often not being sure who the others are in touch with either.
It’s nice that Michael Yon visits places and writes about the dangers he has been through to get there. It’s great that he shows what these places look like and how they feel. Most people will probably never have a chance to go there and he is an excellent photographer. But it would be even better if he had something to say about what he sees.
(*) Yon was apparently told about the dangers and the casualties by his CADG hosts. He doesn’t mention, and maybe was not told, that according to this 22/02 blog by CADG violence in Chora had dropped significantly since the program begun. It is always hard to tell whether projects really have that kind of effect or whether violence just goes up and down randomly, but it is clear that you can make a place sound more or less dangerous, depending on the objective of it.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020